4. The day the world became lighter, April 1, 1976
Early in the morning of April 1, 1976, the BBC radio station 2 presented an interview with noted astronomer Patrick Moore. Moore announced to his interviewer, and thus to listeners, that later that same morning a rare planetary alignment would occur which would have an effect on the gravitational forces on earth. At precisely 9.47 AM in Great Britain the affect would be at its peak. According to Moore if people were to jump into the air at that time they would achieve heights which up to then had been reachable only by NBA players, and some may even be able to float in the air for an extended period.
The appointed time came and went, and the BBC began receiving calls from listeners who reported successfully accomplishing the feat predicted by Moore in the interview. Hundreds of callers reported being able to reach unforeseen heights, and remaining suspended in mid-air for incredible lengths of time. Others claimed that they had been lifted out of their chairs, with no effort on their part, and floated about the room. How many of the callers were simply playing along with the joke and how many were actually taken in is unknown, but BBC 2 and Moore never revealed the idea had been made up by pranksters in the studio, and the affable Moore went along with the joke.
5. A German joke became American news, April 1, 1934
On April Fools’ Day, 1934, a Berlin newspaper published a photograph which showed a man flying using an apparatus which was powered by his own breathing. The man exhaled into a box worn on his chest, his breath causing rotors to spin and create suction, which according to the accompanying article lifted him into the air. Skis attached to his feet were used to land, and a tail fin was strapped to his back, affording him the capability of steering while airborne. The entire article and photograph was clearly a joke, in accordance with the date of its publication in Germany. American wire services picked up the story, and it appeared in American newspapers, one of which was the New York Times, later in the week.
The American newspapers received the story days after it appeared in Germany, and the significance of the date of publication was lost on them. In the United States the story ran as being real news. It was distributed throughout the United States by Hearst International. Newspapers which subscribed to Hearst carried stories which described the invention as a miraculous new means of man achieving flight, and even speculated on the invention’s potential impact on transportation and daily commuting. Gradually the newspapers came to realize that the whole story had been a joke, and the reports of a breath powered aviator faded out.
6. The Norwegian wine bottle shortage, April 1, 1950
The most widely read newspaper in Norway published a story on its front page on April 1, 1950, which described a dilemma faced by the Vinmonopolet, the wine monopoly in Norway which was owned and operated by the government. According to the story, the monopoly faced an overstock of barreled wine, and at the same time a severe shortage of bottles to fill in order to present the wine for sale to the public. In order to alleviate the glut and distribute the wine, the monopoly would sell at a deep discount, and for just that day tax-free, the wine to individuals who arrived at markets with vessels with which to carry the beverage home. The article recommended buckets.
Dutiful Norwegians formed long lines, laden with the recommended buckets, though some brought with them pitchers, empty bottles, and other vessels to carry their share of the inexpensive wine they felt was their due. Gradually realizing that the lines were not moving, or moving very slowly as those at the head of the line realized they’d been had, the disappointed Norwegian wine drinkers went home, many of them leaving their buckets – the symbol that they had been duped – behind. Who placed the story in the newspaper – whether a government official or an impish editor – was never revealed.
In late March every year New Zealand radio stations are warned against perpetrating April Fools’ Day hoaxes on the air, as being a violation of the standards expected of news organizations. The warning came about in the aftermath of an April Fools’ Day joke in 1949. That year a disk jockey by the name of Phil Shone broadcast a report of a swarm of wasps, more than one mile wide, approaching Auckland. Shone exclaimed on the damage the swarm could do to persons who were inundated by it, and told his listeners to take precautions to protect themselves from being stung. He advised them to place traps baited with honey outside their abodes, to keep the wasps from entering the home.
For those who had to go out, he recommended that all skin be covered, with masks and gloves. He also suggested that socks be pulled up over the cuffs of trousers for those forced to be outside. The image of New Zealanders clad as he recommended was no doubt amusing to him, but there were those who did not find the joke entertaining. The New Zealand Broadcast Service determined that the hoax was a violation of the standards all broadcasters were duty bound to meet, and the annual reminder appeared the following year, and every year hence.
It was another disk jockey, at Hawaii’s KHON radio, who created a frenzy through an April Fools’ Day joke in 1954. The radio station announced that the United States had granted statehood to the territory, and as a result, Hawaiians were to receive refunds on the income taxes paid for 1953. IRS offices in the islands and on the mainland were flooded with calls from citizens demanding additional information. So were radio stations, television stations, congressional offices, savings and loans, and banks. The entire territory of Hawaii, not then as populated as today, was placed in a frenzy before cooler heads prevailed.
The situation of residents of Hawaii, who paid federal income taxes but were not granted full rights as citizens of the United States, had been much in the news. Tax relief for the islanders had been discussed among members of Congress, including those lobbying for statehood for the islands. The joke did little other than roil the islands for a few days, before it was demonstrably proven false. Statehood was not granted to the islands until 1959, and Hawaiians were never refunded the income taxes they paid before statehood was achieved.
To Americans, the drive to land on the moon by the end of the decade was in limbo in the spring of 1967. A disastrous and tragic fire which killed three astronauts in January of that year had shaken confidence in the space program. Congress was divided on whether to continue to pursue President Kennedy’s vision. But on April 1 of that year, listeners to Radio Zurich in Switzerland were informed that the Americans had landed on the moon. The news was broadcast in a breathless, rushed fashion, complete with winded reporters rushing to their mikes to deliver the latest information, barely able to control their breathing as the story unfolded.
The good citizens of Zurich were informed of the time the American spaceship would depart the moon to return to earth, and encouraged to head for rural areas where, once away from the light pollution of the city, they would be able to view the departure. Thousands did. Even American officials in Switzerland were taken in by the hoax, which was the brainchild of Radio Zurich’s Hans Menge, a respected news broadcaster. The April Fools’ Day hoax was even monitored by the Soviets, though their radar capabilities caused them to question what they were hearing from the Swiss. The Americans finally did land on the moon over two years later, in July 1969.
The New York Daily Graphic was a newspaper which relied on illustrations rather than writers to deliver the news of the day. It was filled with both original artwork and the reproductions of others. It was the first American newspaper to present a daily weather map, provided by an obliging government, which paid the paper to print it for the benefit of its readers. On April Fools’ Day, 1878, the Graphic presented its readers with an illustrated story which described Thomas Edison, then on the crest of fame for his invention of the phonograph, having created a machine which converted dirt into edible protein. His machine could also emulate the Wedding at Cana, converting water into wine.
According to the Graphic, Edison’s invention forever solved the problem of hunger in the world, since the minerals in the soil could be shaped into food without the pesky delay of growing wheat, or corn, or some other comestible. Competing newspapers reprinted the Graphic’s reporting, and Edison was fervently praised on editorial pages across the country. When editors for the Graphic learned of the story being repeated around the country they took the opportunity to needle their compatriots in the media, reprinting their reports, and gloating over the fact that their competitors had bought into their April Fools’ Day hoax. The writer of the hoax, William Croffut, gave birth to Edison’s moniker, “the Wizard of Menlo Park”.
The British tabloid Daily Mail has long been criticized for its sensationalism, its practice of printing stories of a vague and frightening nature, and for its inaccuracies in reporting. It has also been the target of criticism for copyright violations from time to time. Its sensationalist nature provides it with cover, as it were, when some of its stories appear to be, shall we say, of questionable veracity. Such was the case on April Fools’ Day, 1981, when the paper reported a story of a Japanese long distance runner who had come to England for the London Marathon, and due to a misunderstanding, believed the race consisted of 26 days, rather than 26 miles. According to the Daily Mail, he was still running.
Kimo Nakajimi, the evidently quite fit runner, was reported by the newspaper as being “somewhere” on the roads of the United Kingdom, doggedly determined to complete the marathon. The misunderstanding was attributed to a translation error, but the race officials were unable to determine the exact location of the runner, in part because he was in constant motion. According to the article, numerous residents of the British Isles spotted the runner, who refused to stop when hailed. According to a race official quoted in the article, the misunderstanding was fed by the fact that such grueling endurance races were common in Japan, and thus seemed normal to Kimo.
According to the Berlin Illustrated Newspaper in April 1928, the tiny principality of Liechtenstein suffered from a shortage of marriageable women, due to the migration of such ladies to neighboring Switzerland in search of work. To relieve the shortage, the government of Liechtenstein was importing women from other European countries, transporting them via freight cars. Once they arrived in the small country they were sold at auction to prospective husbands, eager to obtain brides. A photograph which accompanied the article depicted prospective brides being unloaded from the trains, and was considered by the men of Liechtenstein to be particularly offensive.
Most of the women shown were of an inordinately large size, and the populace, government, and newspapers of the principality took the story as an insult. The government and newspapers denounced the story as an example of tactless German boorishness. The story was picked up by other European and American newspapers, and the hoax was blown out of proportion into an international diplomatic incident. The fact that so many other newspapers ran the story saw the photograph, which was considered by the Liechtensteiners the most insulting part of the story, reproduced worldwide.
13. BBC broadcasts aromas via television, April 1, 1965
On April Fools’ Day 1965 the BBC announced a new dimension to their television broadcasts. An interview with a scientist from the University of London revealed that he had perfected a machine which allowed for the broadcast of odors from the studio to receiving sets, with no modification of the sets required. The entire process was completed in the studio, where his machine absorbed the molecules of the aromas and transmitted them over the airwaves. The scientist agreed to a demonstration of his machine, using the pungent aroma of raw onions and the fragrance of freshly brewed coffee, both of which were inserted into his machine. Viewers were asked to call in when they detected the scents.
It didn’t take long before the telephones were ringing in the studio. Scores of viewers from across the United Kingdom called in to report that the machine – which was called smell-o-vision – was a success. Some viewers reported the smell of onions was so strong that it caused their eyes to water. That smell-o-vision was a carefully conceived April Fools’ Day hoax was revealed after the BBC received a multitude of calls from viewers apparently readily susceptible to suggestion. The concept has been revisited in film and television since, though through the use of peripheral equipment rather than the aroma being broadcast through the television receiver.
Among the most famous paintings in the world, and noted for its large size, The Night Watch by Rembrandt von Rijn is beloved by the Dutch as a national symbol, as well as a source of national pride. It is widely considered to be the greatest masterpiece of the period known as the Dutch Golden Age. On April 1, 1950, Dutch citizens were stunned to learn, via radio, that the painting was dissolving of apparently its own accord, with little opportunity of its being saved. According to a broadcast of the Dutch national radio network, the painting was inadvertently cleaned with a harmful cleaning fluid, and was melting throughout the day. Already unrecognizable, by midnight it would be gone.
The radio broadcast caused hundreds of art lovers and students to race to the Rijksmuseum, where the painting was housed, in order to view it one last time. The length of time waiting in the queue was hours, and VARA – the Dutch national radio network – had reporters working the line, interviewing those waiting to see the painting live on the air. Many were in tears. They exited the building through an opposite door so as not to reveal to those still waiting the painting was fine and the story was a hoax. The Night Watch has been the subject of vandalism several times, and in 2019 was schedule for a full restoration, to take place while the painting remained on public display.
The German car manufacturer BMW has a long tradition of presenting advertisements on the first of April which are deliberate hoaxes, leading their fans to expect them and limiting their efficiency as a joke, since it is well-known and expected of them. That was not the case on April Fools’ Day, 1983, when magazine and newspaper advertisements revealed their latest innovation in luxury. The company announced a new sunroof, which drivers could leave open in the hardest rain while the interior of the vehicle remained dry. According to the ads, the car could be driven through an automatic carwash with the top open, the occupants protected by the new design.
BMW claimed that the new sunroof was designed by one of their engineers, identified by the company as Herr Blohn. The system used high volume air blowers to direct a jet of air across the opening, which diverted water from entering the vehicle. Those potential customers who wanted additional information were directed to telephone customer service and direct their call to April Wurst (pronounced versed). Since the 1983 April Fools’ Day advertisement BMW has produced many more such jokes, inspiring similar tongue in cheek advertisements and announcements by competitors.
Those who subscribe to UFO conspiracies will be dismayed to learn that one of the photos of an extraterrestrial which purports to support evidence of alien contact began as an April Fools’ Day joke in a German newspaper. It began with a photograph of an alien which appeared in a Wiesbaden newspaper accompanying an article which described the crash of a UFO discovered by American soldiers. The alien, alive, had been taken into the soldiers’ custody. Several days later the newspaper published an announcement describing the article and photograph as an April Fools’ Day joke. By that time a copy of the photograph was in the FBI’s voluminous files.
In 1980 the photograph was obtained by the authors of the book The Roswell Incident, Charles Berlitz and William Moore. They presented the photograph as proof of an alien encounter, which had been hushed up by the United States military. The German photographer who created the picture, as an April Fools’ Day hoax, later revealed that the “alien” was actually his then five year old son, costumed and posing with amenable American soldiers. The revelation has not stopped those who believe it to be a photograph of a genuine extraterrestrial from continuing to present it as proof that earth has been visited by aliens and governments continue to create cover ups to deny the fact to citizens.
The Germans, through their newspapers, have a long and distinguished history of producing April Fools’ Day hoaxes, some more believable than others. In April, 1921, a Berlin newspaper produced a story which explained how a particularly innovative farmer derived lard from his pigs without killing them. The lard was removed surgically from the living animal, which was then stitched up to presumably produce yet more lard. The animal was numbed during the procedure, which could be performed up to three times per year, making the animal a living lard factory. First British, and later American newspapers reprinted the story and enhanced it.
For over a year the story remained in play. The farmer who discovered the process had been described as living in the town of Schleichegrieben. Once it became apparent that no town of that name existed in Germany British newspapers began to question the story. The name of the fictional town translated to sneaking bacon, another indication of the falsity of the story. The Berlin newspaper which originally published the story admitted it was an April Fools’ Day joke over a year after it first appeared, having fooled hardened news publishers in Europe and America, as well as their readers, for most of that time.
It would be hard to imagine a purpose for write-only memory, which allows information to be stored but never retrieved. But on April 1, 1973, Signetics, a California based manufacturer of integrated circuit chips founded in 1961, announced that they had successfully developed write-only memory in a press release. A spokesperson for the company, Roy L. Twitty, called the innovation a major achievement which would have a beneficial effect on the lives of all who ever used computers. Signetics included technical data sheets describing the memory as part of the press release, comprised of meaningless diagrams and equations.
The concept became an inside joke within the industry, and was expanded upon by other manufacturers and engineers, including Apple, which included references to it in their reference manual for the Apple IIe computer in 1982. Apple claimed that the concept of write-only memory was developed under a government contract in 1975, and that it had been criticized as a “six-million dollar boondoggle” but that the device allowed for the storage of “excess information”, and thus saved millions of dollars by freeing up conventional memory storage systems for other uses. The concept remains an allusion to a totally worthless device or idea.
Popular Electronics published their April issue for 1955 including an article which described the concept of “Contra-Polar Energy”. Contra-polar energy was described as negative energy, which when applied to any electronic or electrical device would cause it to produce the exact opposite of what it was designed to produce. In other words, if applied to a light bulb, the bulb would cast darkness rather than light. An electric element on a stove would become ice cold rather than generate heat. The energy could act as a brake on an electric motor. According to the magazine the energy was developed secretly by the military during the Second World War.
The magazine included a photograph which depicted a table lamp creating darkness on the surface on which it rested. The article also contained a disclaimer, which directed the readers’ attention to the fact of its being published on the first day of April. Nonetheless, interested readers continued to write to the magazine for additional information for years. In 1959 Popular Electronics was forced to issue a statement which indicated the article had been an April Fools’ Day joke, and continued demand for more information led to their doing so again in 1963, eight years after its original publication.
20 London’s Big Ben converted to digital, April 1, 1980
Once again, in 1980 the BBC perpetrated a hoax in celebration of April Fools’ Day which bemused some and outraged others. Clocks and watches with digital faces rather than traditional dials were all the rage in the late 1970s and early 1980s. On April 1, the BBC reported that in accordance with the times the famed London hallmark, Big Ben, would be equipped with a digital face replacing its dial. The report included much of the history of what is arguably the world’s most famous clock, and closed with the announcement that the hands would be given away to listeners on a first come, first served basis. Calls from around the world began immediately, hoping to obtain a relic of the clock.
Not all of the calls were about gaining one of the clock’s hands. The British public was outraged at the idea. The volume of calls and the anger expressed in them forced the network to issue a statement that the entire report had been an April Fools’ Day joke. That announcement merely increased the numbers of calls into the BBC, from viewers and listeners who did not find the joke the least bit funny. The BBC issued several apologies for the gaffe. The joke has been repeated over the years by British tabloids and magazines, with reasons for the conversion given as an effort to boost tourism and the need to upgrade the clock, but never with the overwhelmingly negative reaction expressed in 1980, which gives an indication of the credibility the BBC held with the public at the time.
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